Four Questions with Public Health Communications Expert Kimberly Henderson

May 23, 2023 | Keith Coleman

microphone-focus-speaker-podium-meeting-town-hall.jpgFor Kim Henderson, PhD, Washington, D.C. has been home. But like LeBron James, she’s taking her talents elsewhere. After nearly four years at the D.C. Department of Health (DC Health), Henderson has been named deputy chief of staff for the Harris County Public Health Department. To celebrate Henderson’s new position and her dedication to public health, ASTHO asked her to reflect on her experience and role leading public health communications for the nation’s capital.

You served as one of the lead public health communicators for the nation’s capital during the pandemic. What lessons did you learn?

As a public health communicator, you get in the habit of focusing on the monthly and yearly health occurrences (e.g., flu season, breast cancer awareness), community engagement activities, and the many other daily tasks. In the back of your mind, you know that at any moment something larger could occur and you’re ready for it—but you’re only ready for the response to last a couple of months.

COVID-19 taught me both strategic and personal lessons. Here are a few things I learned:

  • Be prepared to refresh and revise your messages to keep residents’ attention.
  • Combine grassroots and traditional communications tactics to maximize results.
  • Use real community members and leaders as messengers in your campaigns.
  • Listen to constituents to truly meet their needs and not your own.
  • Pace yourself.
  • Don’t lose sight of why you are doing the work.
  • Be okay with stretching and being stretched.
  • You never know what you are capable of accomplishing.

What are the biggest communication challenges facing public health in 2023?

One is understanding how to keep your organization in the spotlight post-COVID, especially when there is health information fatigue. In other words, maintaining visibility among and trust of constituents while encouraging them to live healthy lives. Another challenge is not knowing when another public health emergency or outbreak will occur. We know when flu season occurs every year, but predicting a public health emergency or outbreak is impossible.

Lastly, it’s critical to build communication teams and programs that are suitable for public health departments. Communications is the nucleus for health departments across the country and having a strong communications program is vital.

What advice do you have for public health communicators to tackle these challenges?

First, conduct surveys and polls with constituents to learn what health topics are interesting to them and how they like to receive information. Do the same with community-based and faith-based organizations to glean their thoughts on your communications efforts and how to maintain collaborative partnerships. This strategy will help focus efforts and better meeting the needs of those who we serve. It will also help with fostering partnerships.

Second, ensure your agency is prepared for the next public health emergency by updating or developing a crisis communications plan. Your plan should outline the processes and procedures used to develop accurate, timely messages to communicate necessary information to the public—including vulnerable populations—during an emergency. Also, provide best practices on how to sustain communication efforts for events that may occur over a year.

Next, develop a communications strategic plan or playbook. For some jurisdictions across the country, new communication directors and staff joined teams during the pandemic and have no real sense of day-to-day communications activities. Having a strategic plan or playbook helps to fill that gap and quickly bring communicators up to speed.

Lastly, build relationships with communications programs at local colleges and universities and offer internships within your office. This will help with building the next generation of public health communicators and offer students the opportunity to gain experience in a possible career path.

What will you miss most about Washington, D.C.?

It has truly been an honor and privilege to have worked for DC Health as well as with my colleagues across District government. DC Health has a strong mission and vision, and the work is truly centered around the residents and the millions of people who visit our city each year; it will always have a special place in my heart.

Washington, D.C. is truly home—it’s where I completed my studies (Howard University) and developed my passion for public health communications. It’s also where I met many wonderful colleagues and lifelong friends. I will miss D.C., but I promise I’ll be back to visit for the National Cherry Blossom Festival or for Howard’s homecoming.